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Hammond's icons: Renault 5 GT Turbo

  1. Staring at the Renault 5 GT turbo’s squat, neat but strangely pugnacious little form, I suddenly realised that there was a whole generation in danger of missing the point here. I was thrilled, desperate to have a go in it and send it round the track, but I could easily picture the blank, incomprehending faces of younger drivers staring at it and wondering what the fuss is about.

    I’m talking about the generation growing up unfamiliar not only with vinyl records, but even with CDs. To the mp3 generation (and, yes, I use an iPod too, but that’s not the point), the little Renault is just an ageing hot hatch from a time before NOS and carbon fibre. Why, then, can it raise the hairs on the back of the neck of those of us who knew it when it was new? Simple, one word: turbo.

    In 1985, when the first-generation Renault 5 GT turbo arrived, the word still quivered and vibrated with potency. Pens, mugs, school rulers: all were emblazoned with the legend. Stitch ‘turbo’ onto a woollen tank top, sell it on a market stall, and any young man without one would be ostracised and become a glue-sniffing loner talking to himself in the street within weeks.

    Words: Richard Hammond
    Pics: Justin Leighton

    This feature first appeared in the January 2012 issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. To be fair, the first cars used an eight-valve 1397cc pushrod engine that had its roots in the Fifties and was hardly a pinnacle of sophistication. Turbo lag was an issue, and it wasn’t exactly a razor-sharp instrument on the track. But who cares? Sitting in a pub and complaining nonchalantly about turbo lag was cooler than moaning to your mates that the Bond girl you were dating drank too much champagne and disturbed the people in the flat below when she practised her pole dancing.

    And looking at it now, there remains a distant echo of that thrill. It’s certainly not the way it looks. The flared arches, oddly square against the profile of the little alloys suggest a terrier-like agility and determination, but contribute little towards the great avalanche of excitement the car can generate in some.

    But it is more than just association with that magical mantra. Whisper it now, ‘turbo’. This was a hot hatch, yes, but it was so much more than a first step on the performance car ladder, it was - and still is - a properly quick car. The original rocket-powered skateboard, it was expensive but light and therefore fast, hitting 60mph in 7.3 seconds. And it was, thanks to that word, ‘turbo’, fantastically exotic.

  3. By 1990, when this Raider final edition came out, the frenzy around the word ‘turbo’ might have died down, but it was still a fiery little car. And there was something deliciously alternative about it; there still is. The interior is quirky and different, the plastic buttons clearly the subject of much design and thought, despite their plain, straight-edged look. But really, the main event - the whole point of the thing - is, thankfully, that turbo.

    Underway, it still goes like stink and the turbo is always letting you know it’s there, whistling and whooshing away, lifting the car’s little square nose and thrusting you into a corner. It’s like having a noisy, disruptive child in class who’s also really bright; sometimes inspirational and sometimes just bloody irritating. But always appealing.

  4. The suspension isn’t especially flash, but it can handle the 118bhp being sent to it with ease, thanks largely to the four-square lay-out giving plenty of grip and decent balance. The dash shakes and creaks a bit - maybe because it’s old now, but probably because of the bursts of turbocharged power being thrust through the structure of the thing.

  5. By 1990, the turbo was water-cooled, and a new ignition system released an extra 500rpm, meaning more whooshes and hoots from under the bonnet and greater chances to enjoy the lateral grip from this stroppy, shouty, but bright, little puppy. Few modern hot hatches can get near the sense of barely restrained, joyous hooliganery that the little Renault gives, and I, for one, could live with one very, very happily.

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